Typology, maths and the Brexit Brain

Now, it’s difficult to believe, but those questionable questionnaires, the EQ and the SQ, are in fact the only tools that Simon Baron-Cohen uses in the diagnosis of brain sex. We’ve already identified a number of flaws that undermine their reliability as tools for diagnosing anything other than your own opinion of yourself, or perhaps how middle class you are,1 but let’s overlook this for a moment and consider the statistics they produce.

(NB. You’re supposed to take both and compare your scores. If you score higher on the SQ, you have a “systemising” or “male” brain, represented as S > E (S is greater than E); if you score higher on the EQ, you have an “empathising” or “female” brain, represented as S < E (S is smaller than E). If you score equally on both, you have a “balanced” brain, represented as S ≈ E.)

The following table is taken from a 2005 paper listed on Baron-Cohen’s University of Cambridge page as one of his “key publications,” notable as his only paper ever published in the reputable journal Science.2

Screenshot 2017-08-23 17.14.05

Now, observe that only 48.5% of women actually have any sort of “female” brain (adding the “Extreme female” and “Female” scores). Even using his own gender-stereotype detection tools, Simon Baron-Cohen finds that 51% of women do not have “the female brain.” (Remember, the female advantage in empathising narrows or disappears when the tools are less subjective.3) What, then, makes this kind of brain so very female? I rather wish that Baron-Cohen’s brand of mathematics had been applied to the EU referendum last year: the 48.11% for Remain would have been considered more representative of the people’s will than the other 51.89% and my £££ would still afford me a decent number of croissants at family reunions in France.

The SQ does net a slightly higher proportion of men, at 59.6%, but that isn’t exactly an overwhelming majority either, even though the SQ is more blatantly gendered male. Do these numbers really merit classification into “neurophysiological” types?

Have a look at this figure, from the same page:

Screenshot 2017-08-23 19.04.06

Even overlooking the fact that the numbers on the x and y axes here refer to nothing more than people’s scores on those subjective and stereotyped self-report questionnaires, this graph actually shows a good deal of overlap between the red diamonds representing women and the blue triangles representing men (I won’t be discussing the green squares representing people diagnosed with Autism Spectrum disorders). But the diagonal stripes of colour are supposed to show that, in fact, those clustered questionnaire-scores are in fact produced by five distinct “brain types”.

Now ask yourself who decided where the “boundaries for the different brain types” should be drawn, and how this was decided. Do those lines really mean anything?

Consider the three red diamonds clustered where the Systemizing 30 line crosses the Empathizing 40 line, at the boundary of the “Balanced” (white) and “Systemizing” (light pink) zones. Those diamonds represent three women not diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder. One is in the white zone (we’ll call it Diamond A), and two (Diamonds B and C, from left to right) lie just inside the pink zone (on top of two blue triangles, which represent two men who got the same scores as these women). Diamond A and Diamond B have the same SQ score, but are two points apart on the EQ axis and happen to fall in different zones; Diamonds B and C have different EQ and SQ scores, but both fall within the pink ‘Systemising’ zone. According to Baron-Cohen Diamonds B and C are of one type, while Diamond A is in another category entirely. But is this really convincing? Do we really believe that Diamond A represents a woman with a different type of “neurophysiology?”

What is a type anyway?

Of course we all think we know what a “type” is: it’s a word we all use. But Baron-Cohen claims to be doing “science” here, and so we must hold him to scientific standards.

In the language of the natural sciences, a “type” signifies “a group or division of animals, etc., having a common form or structure” (OED 8.a.). Baron-Cohen is tapping in, here, to the vocabulary of taxonomy (the classification of organisms in the biological sciences of bottany and zoology); or, to be precise, the vocabulary of Linnaean Taxonomy.

Most readers will be familiar with this system of taxonomy (which is the dominant system today, although it has adapted over the years), whether they realise it or not: the organisation of animals and plants by species, genus, family, order, class, phylum and kingdom.

Now, the Linnaean system was originally a typological taxonomy: Carl Linnaeus grouped organisms by observable type. Modern taxonomists have moved away from typology, but I’ll deal with that in my next post. For now, let’s just look at what does constitute a type if you’re into that sort of thing. According to a recent book supporting typological classification, “types are crucial in most natural classification because they are the phenomena around which classifications are made.”4 That is to say, phenomena (e.g. animals or plants) are observed, patterns (similarities in structure) are noted, individuals sharing characteristics are grouped into “types,” and then classifications are made based on these types.

But to be considered a type in its own right, an individual or group of individuals must be sufficiently different from the others already known to us:

we recognize the specimen as a “different type” only because we already have prior knowledge of things that are in relationship to it and identify that it does not fit neatly into the patterns they generate. Hence, there is a pattern, but it is a pattern of exclusion: the new taxon is formed from the joint assumption that the specimen must reside in a taxon, and that it does not reside in existing related taxa. (ibid.)

And for an observed type to become a classification, the quality and degree of difference has to be well-established. In The Classification of the Sciences, Herbert Spencer, one of the first evolutionary biologists and contemporary of Charles Darwin, offers this simple and elegant definition:

A true classification includes in each class, those objects which have more characteristics in common with one another, than any of them have in common with any objects exluded from the class.

Now, are we entirely persuaded that the women behind Diamonds B and C must have more in common with one another than with the woman behind Diamond A? Even though A and B actually have an SQ score in common?

More on types tomorrow. For now, let me leave you with a link to another blog post, written today by a friend of mine (it’s a great read, and not just because I have a cameo role in it). She studied maths at Cambridge and afterwards went into computer programming (sounds systemisey, doesn’t it?), while I studied English and have more or less been reading fiction full time since I graduated (empathisey?) – and yet her blog is far more aesthetically pleasing and person- or emotions-related than this one, which is turning out to be more systematic than anything I ever thought I’d write. Perhaps we accidentally swapped brains one day when we were out jogging together.

She can still code like nobody’s business, though, while I can barely handle a ready-made WordPress domain…



1We have seen that the questions themselves are not demonstrably linked to “neurophysiology” so much as to contemporary, occidental, middle-class gender stereotypes. It is not at all clear that Baron-Cohen’s chosen examples of “systemising” really do demonstrate that function (is football really more systemising than knitting?). We have also seen that an individual’s score may be affected by the way they see themselves and would like to be seen – as more systemising or as more empathising – and that it is likely to fluctuate throughout one’s lifetime.

2Baron-Cohen, Knickmeyer and Belmonte, ‘Sex differences in the brain: implications for explaining autism,’ Science, 310 (2005), pp. 819-23 (p.821).

3 See Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (London, 2011), Amazon Kindle e-book, Chapter 2, location 567.

4Wilkins and Ebach, The Nature of Classification: Relationships and Kinds in the Natural Sciences (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). Quotations are taken from the Google Books preview that does not give page numbers.

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